Poetry / Geetha Iyer
:: Scarce Resources ::
Los indígenas precolombinos veneraban a la rana [dorada] y tallaron talismanes de arcilla y oro (huacas) semejantes a éstas. Esta práctica condujo al mito moderno de que las ranas doradas se transforman en huacas de oro al morir, y cualquier persona que ve o posee una rana dorada viva tendrá buena fortuna.
I have been thinking about amphibians the way others think about fortunes. The cost of storing sperm in a vat of nitrogen. The cost of lighting, casing, ventilation. Labor—the woman who raises a swarm of fruit flies, dusts them in nutritional supplements. The value of a toad in a tank that refuses to lay. Maybe she wasn’t feeling it. Maybe, tomorrow, as that woman who minds the amphibian tanks crunches the season’s dry leaves underfoot, she’ll sicken of her commute. Low pay and stubborn animals. She doesn’t see enough of her children, worries what they haven’t learned in school. It is for her that guyacán trees burst into bloom. Their amarillo brillante punctures months of drought like the silk-strung suns of orb-weaver webs. Wealthy men, artists, harvested the labor of Madagascans, made them milk gold from such spiders, spin threads and weave a mantle they draped over the shoulders of a woman pale as baby’s breath. My grandmother’s saris were shot with gold threads, my mother’s silver, plated, mine plastic treated to shine, so scarce are the veins under earth. I think of the coats some toads wear, signaling fitness, the coming of storms, sex, biohazard toxins, prospectors’ fortunes. They’re extinct in the wild, those ranas doradas. After the harvest, we shall need new myths. A woman returns to her children in the dark, kisses the brown of their foreheads, whispers that they must study hard, become economists. But stop, she adds, to praise the brief sunbursts of guayacanes before their flowers fall, lest the rains do not follow, lest your hearts compress to mere nuggets beneath your lungs.
This poem takes its epigraph from Zippel, K. C. et al. Implicaciones en la conservación de las ranas doradas de Panamá, asociadas con su revisión taxonómica. Herpetotropicos 3:1 (2006), 29–39.
From the writer
:: Account ::
We are living through a bottleneck period—the Anthropocene era of mass extinction; the ever-widening gap between wealth and poverty; the brink of nuclear warfare between megalomaniacs; the institutional exploitation of people most marginalized by power structures; and the collapse of critical ecosystems under the impacts of climate change, population growth, and unchecked resource extraction. Those of us who will make through the other end of this bleak and narrowing tunnel will be poorer for all that we have left behind in the wreckage. We will only have stories of those who died, images and videos of megafauna and microbiota that have gone extinct. We will speak less than a couple hundred languages. We will have forgotten the names of everyone who didn’t have the wealth to erect monuments in their memory. I am haunted by this inevitability. When I write, about people or about other organisms, it is to commit something of what is wonderful about this world into the abstract realm of memory. It’s all I can carry with me, citations included.
“Scarce Resources” concerns itself with extinction on the one hand and economics on the other. I live in Panama, where the golden frog, Atelopus zeteki, is an icon for native biodiversity and conservation. I wrote the first draft of this poem in mid-April, just before the first rains of the season, when Tabebuia guayacan trees bloom en masse. Words cannot express their yellow in full sunlight—their magnificence stops cars short along the road-side so people can get out to take photos of them. Yellow-gold is the heart of this poem, given form in animal, mineral, and plant form. A Panamanian told me a version of the story that appears in the poem’s epigraph, and since my Spanish is not as good as it should be, I misunderstood its meaning. I thought the modern myth of the Panamanian golden frog (scientifically speaking, a toad) went like this: that if a man were lucky enough to find and capture one in the wild, upon death, he would turn to gold. In fact, in the story I was told, it was the frog that would turn to gold. In reality, A. zeteki is extinct in the wild, which makes me wonder, if we dug up the earth, would we find their little bodies transmogrified into gold nuggets? And if we found nothing, what stories would we tell then? What would we do without yellow so yellow it glowed?
Geetha Iyer received an MFA in Creative Writing & Environment from Iowa State University in 2014. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in journals including Orion, Gulf Coast, the Mid-American Review, and the Massachusetts Review, among others. Recognition for her work includes the O. Henry Award, the James Wright Poetry Award, the Calvino Prize, and the Gulf Coast Fiction Prize. She was a 2016 writer-in-residence at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology in Oregon and a 2017 writer-in-residence at Estudio Nuboso’s Lab de Arte y Ciencia in Panama. She was born in India, grew up in the United Arab Emirates, and presently lives in Panama.